Hebrew: A Century of Jewish Thought
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Author: Henrietta Szold

Henrietta Szold reflects on the revival of the Hebrew language.

Recently there fell into my hands the first issue of a Hebrew lexicon which, it is projected, shall contain all the words of the Hebrew language with the shades of meaning with which they were invested as they passed through the Biblical, Mishnaic, and Talmudic stages, as well as the medieva l renascence and the modern revivals; together with all the new formations created by the, practical needs of the Palestinian colonists, or necessitated by the terminology of contemporary scientific and philosophic works translated ...from the German, French, and English. The compiler, (Eliezer Ben Yehuda) it is said, uses Hebrew in his daily intercourse with his family. His home is in Palestine, where the text-books of geography , history, arithmetic, and other departments of a common school course prepared for the schools of the Jewish colonies and of the large Jewish town communities, have been compiled in Hebrew during the last six or eight years. At the Gymnasium, situated, I believe, at Jaffa, all branches belonging to the curriculum of such institutions are taught in the same language, every other being studied as a foreign tongue.

A word-treasury of this kind may seem superfluous to those who do not know that of making many Hebrew books there is no end-who do not realize, for instance, that the catalogue of authors and titles of Hebrew works published since the death of Mendelssohn, somewhat more than a century ago, fills an octavo volume of nearly one thousand pages.

The French quarterly devoted to Jewish science is in the habit of presenting at more or less regular intervals, every half-year or nine months, a bibliography of the most important recent publications on Jewish subjects in all languages. The last list of the kind (Revue des Etudes Juives, January to March, 1895) contained the names of twenty-six works written in Hebrew.

Among them is a notice of the annual publication of the Warsaw society Achiassaf -a sort of Jewish Publication Society, supported by the Jews of Poland and Russia, partly with the purpose of republishing in the original, and distributing at a nominal price, the works of our classical Hebrew poets and philosophers.

I have ventured to group these isolated facts -by no means all that might have been adduced -because to my thinking they form a commentary upon the trend of contemporary Jewish thought. It is not for me to enter into the subject-matter of this voluminous modern Hebrew literature. Some of it is ephemeral, deriving neither sanctity nor depth from the time-honored, tradition-laden language in which it chances to be couched. Much is merely an attempt to acquaint millions of Jews with the creations of modern literature and the results of latter-day science.

The vehicle is significant, only inasmuch as it conveys an idea of the number of those for whom Hebrew is the chief literary medium, and of the zeal of our far Eastern race brethren in keeping pace with the procession -of the ages. Some of it -and here the language assumes high importance- is poetry, fine enough to bear comparison with what our age can boast in any language, and as stirring and strong as it should be under the stimulus of Anti-Semitism, which broke the heart of a German-Jewish poet, and the Russian persecution, which stung an American-Jewish poetess into recognition of her noble heritage. Most of this contemporary Hebrew literature, however, binds us by content as well as language to our people's literary history of more than twenty-five hundred years. It is in a line with what the Jew has been doing with single-hearted devotion since the Holy Writings were, collected into a canon. It continues the work of commenting upon the Law, which is the blood of our race, the soul of our faith, the quickening force in our life. In our age, as in all before, we are clearing, editing, sifting, explaining, arranging the commentaries with their super-commentaries, upon the Law and the Prophets. Like our forebears, we are occupied with a criticism, in the constructive sense of the word, of that vast literature which has been our abundant compensation for loss of royal power, of national independence, and of the land promised to our fathers-a criticism, therefore, of Jewish life itself. In our time, as in every time of intellectual application, we are returning to the study of the Bible.

What I would dwell upon is that if the mentioned examples of an increased use of Hebrew may be taken as indications, we are returning, not only to the Bible, but to the language of the Bible. Whatever the contents of the Hebrew literature of the past century, it unmistakably shows that Hebrew is a living literary medium. When we come to inquire for whom at present it is a literary medium, we find that, besides appealing to Jewish scholars the world over, it is used for the convenience and pleasure of millions of our race in the East, with whom, as a rule, we Occidentals have not yet learned to reckon as intellectual, social, and religious factors in our Jewish life. To them the language has a value apart from that conferred upon it by its being the language of the greater portion of our liturgy. Yet it is precisely in the mind of these modern readers of Hebrew that the line between the secular and the religious is not rigidly drawn. They have a much more connected view of our literature as a whole than we who depend wholly on inadequate translations can possibly have. Clothing itself in phraseology pregnant with the religious consciousness of our nation, the secular is elevated and consecrated; while the religious literature, with which a vital connection is thus maintained, is not removed beyond daily common life, but stands to it in the relation of classic writings to contemporary literature -it is the inexhaustible source of inspiration and spiritual strength. So was it intended from the first: religion was to be life itself to the Jew; hence resulted the minute ceremonialism of the Law to regulate and sanctify the lowliest habitual act, and hence the varied, of time worldly character of the biblical writings collected by our fathers for the instruction and edification of the Jew. Man's every act has a religious bearing; therefore true literature, the unfalsified record of man's acts and thoughts, is religious.

At no time has it been proper to class Hebrew among the dead languages. At the utmost there may be said to have been periods when it lacked animation, and needed an infusion of fresh blood. A decadent Hebrew style too often for our happiness reflected the sorrow and agony of the writers. But sunshine was sure to bring a revival, and such a revival took place somewhat more than a century ago in the circle over which Mendelssohn presided. It is an historic axiom that Mendelssohn enabled the Jew to enter the arena of public social life by the gift of a pure modern language. Some would have us believe it equally axiomatic that he made Judaism a respectable member of the parliament of religions by suggesting the omission of forms. This statement it is difficult to accept. A lover of beauty, and the expounder of the philosophy of the esthetic, Mendelssohn laid stress upon forms as essentials in any system of living. Not absence, but cultivation of form as the preserver of a volatile essence was his aim, and therefore he turned his attention to language, the most usual, yet the most subtle form of thought. In his perfect sanity he recognized that unclear language fosters confusion of thought, and that the sublimest of thoughts has no effective reality until it appears in the garb of suitable language. And although he said of himself that he understood nothing that smacked of history, his historic sense was keen enough to make him realize vividly that the Jew can grow -only from his own roots in his own soil. If the Jew is to be transformed into a desirable member of society, it will come about by making him not the less, but the more a Jew; by leading him to concentrate his energy upon his peculiar inheritance; by having him do, not what outsiders, friends or foes, would have him do, but what is forced upon him by the inevitable logic of his past, and having him do that better than anyone else can possibly do it. When, that result is achieved, the Jew will be a cultured man, and the Jewish people an indispensable link in the federation of nations allied for the work of civilization. Such development will be but another illustration of one of the primary truths of our civilization-the truth which by the student of organic nature is recognized as the specialization of function; which in the industrial world is embodied in the accepted principle of division of labor; which in the political world has been exemplified in this century in the reawakening of Greece, the unification of Germany and Italy, and the development of the Danubian principalities into independent states, through the consciousness living in each of its peculiar endowment; which in the moral and pedagogic world, finally, is a potent regulative in the form of self-respect.

To return to Mendelssohn -he felt that the corrupt mixture of doubtful Hebrew and German into which his Jewish compatriots had been putting the Bible, or in which they had been talking of biblical subjects, was bound to lead to crooked thinking of thoughts departing as far from the standard of truth as the language in which they were expressed deviated from the line of beauty. From the aspect of affairs in Mendelssohn's time, the Jew might be expected soon to enter into the life of the nation in whose midst he was living. When that happened he would appropriate all its purity and fullness the language of the land. Who was desirous of helping on the former happy consummation must facilitate the acquisition of the latter.

There was one danger. When he mastered the language of intercourse, and reveled in its artistic syntax, its insinuating forms, its exuberant forms, would he not shudder at the recollection of the coarse jargon he had spoken, and would he not cast the odium attaching to it upon the subjects formerly discussed in the patois? The issue proved the fear well grounded.

The remedy, if any existed, was to make those very subjects the instruments for teaching the new language, and so let each derive dignity from the other. To the Jew in possession of or aspiring after modern culture, a German translation of the Bible might be held out as a bait to lure him to the study of Jewish subjects; while for the Ghetto Jew, fearful of opening his eyes to the sunlight, the Bible might serve as a justification of the modern language whose use was imperative under the changed conditions. The Bible, then, was put into good, simple German to teach a new language and to reveal the literary beauties of the book, if not best known, certainly best loved. The one sort of Jew needed a striking demonstration that his spiritual possessions, peculiar as they are, fall under the esthetic categories accepted by civilized nations. The other sort had to learn that it does not involve loss of individuality to drop the mannerisms created by European hate, cherished because the badge of loyalty, and in turn rendering him odious to those who had produced them. The task, in short, was to expound the nature of true self-respect and to inculcate it in a people until then unable to win respect.

Mendelssohn in a certain sense builded better than he knew. The purification of one language led to the conscious cultivation of another. In the eighth century of our era, when the Jewish and the Mahometan world came into intimate contact with each other in the East and in the West, a wondrous revival of Hebrew came about. In the pride of his conquests, the Arab was intensely self-conscious. He believed in himself, and whatever belonged to him aroused his enthusiasm. Under this stimulus of success and self-admiration, his literature flourished. Close to him in race and life, the Jew was spurred on to display his gifts too, and the Hebrew language was rescued from the slough of corruptness into which it had been slipping.

The first grammatical studies were prosecuted, rhyme was introduced, metre adopted, and newly acquired linguistic principles were applied to the old, ever new, national textbook, the Bible. A study resumed with an ulterior purpose became an end, and the literary impetus flowing from -biblical research shaped centuries of philosophic thought and poetic creation. This bit of history repeated itself in Mendelssohn's time. In translating the Bible, it became apparent that the best studied was by no means the best known book; that its very language was unfamiliar in its refinements to them who had used it day after day. The emergency called out two men-the gentle poet Naphtali Hartwig Wessely, and Isaac Euchel, the restorer of Hebrew prose-whose life-work was the rehabilitation of the sacred tongue, the demonstration that in force, sweetness, and 'pliability it was the equal of the modern languages. A wide-spread school sprang into existence with the aim of, once more refining Hebrew into a literary medium to effect for Jews everywhere what the German Bible translation was doing for German-speaking Jews-namely, foster self-respect. Since then Hebrew has not ceased to be used for .general literary purposes. In Germany, France, Holland, Italy, Russia, and Poland-that is, on the European continent-a long line of writers have chosen Hebrew as the vehicle of their message, their thoughts borrowing depth and grace from the language, and their working instinct with Jewish consciousness, which kept in bounds is self-respect.

Kept in bounds, I repeat. If not restrained and disciplined by self-knowledge, self-respect degenerates into self-approval, and eventually sinks into that most contemptible of qualities, national conceit or Chauvinism. In Mendelssohn's time it had seemed superfluous to lay stress on the necessity the Jew was under of cultivating a knowledge of his history. If excess of devotion to one's national and religious heritage can be a fault, it was the fault of the Jews of that day. Even the prudent who feared loss in religiousness consequent upon a gain in modern culture were not sufficiently acute to foresee the precipitate rush into the arms of the Church that soon followed in Mendelssohn's own circle. If, however, a good degree of human nature, observing the preva lent tenseness the emotions, had predicted this lamentable result, he would have added to his prophecy the consoling forecast at a healthy reaction was bound to set in. But not most cautious, nor the most imaginative could have faintly suspected the reign of reasoned superficiality inaugurated by Friedlander -the Friedlander who drew up the letter to the Berlin Consistory expressing a desire for baptism on condition that he and his fellow petitioners be excused from the belief in Jesus and from participation in the rites of the Church, and be permitted to explain Christian dogmas in their own way. I may say in passing that wish history at the end of a century has not given him a vote of confidence.

Friedlander, to be sure, was either an arch-fool or an arch-knave; not many were quite so stupidly or so dishonestly forgetful of self. But in general, must be confessed, superficiality was the concomitant of modern culture in the German Jew of a century ago. Hardly had he entered the portals of the modern world when he forgot all that the ages had bequeathed to him his language, his literature, his Law. Does not this swift putting aside of his treasures prove that despite long and absorbed contemplation of them he had not known their value?

A generation after. Mendelssohn's death things had come to such a pass that the time was ripe for another preacher of self-respect, who was to emphasize most forcibly the necessity of self-knowledge. Leopold Zunz wrote works which for German Jews at least served as guideposts to national self-knowledge. He recalled to their better selves those who had forgotten the distinction of their ancestry, not by flattering national self-love) but by unrolling a picture of our historic and literary development, which is a patent of nobility of so peculiar a nature that it confers nobility only on those who know its terms-a clear case of nobility involving obligations. While Zunz was so instructing his German brethren through the medium of Schiller's and Goethe's language, a galaxy of Hebrew writers addressing a wider audience were grouping themselves about Krochmal, Rapoport, and Erter. Their trenchant Hebrew style a two-edged sword in their hands, they entered the very camp of Chassidistic fanaticism, where the powers of the dark were threatening to extinguish the light of reason. Hither amid thither, into the most sombre recesses of the Jewish past, they darted the rays of their intellect, revealing beauty after beauty, until thousands of enthusiastic hearts quivered with proud emotion.

Zunz died only a decade ago, at the age of ninety-two, the link connecting our generation with that of Mendelssohn's personal followers. His disciples, and in turn theirs, are legion-a host of workers in the vineyard of Jewish science who will not let the lesson their master taught slip out of our minds. Not a clod of earth is left unturned. Partly under the stimulus of Anti-Semitism and the Russian persecution, but chiefly under that of reawakened love for our inheritance, they are indefatigable in the production of proofs that the Jew deserves well of those who are enjoying the fruits of civilization. No matter how egregious the indifference of the Jewish rank and file, the cultured world at large will ere long be convinced by the industry of these diggers in their own vineyard, that the Jew has not yet exhausted his fund of contributions to civilization and culture. For the first time lour history since 1290, English Jews are forming a considerable contingent to the army of Jewish scholars. In England and

America a band of students, many of them young, are bending their energies to the cultivation of their national inheritance, a task as congenial to their gifts as ear to their hearts. Perhaps no better evidence of their influence can be adduced than the fact that one of the largest publishing firms announces a series of works to be called "The Jewish Library."

It is by no means to be supposed that the reign of Jewish ignorance is over. Perhaps it has never been more powerful, or more dangerous. Into some quarters only a ray of self-respect has pierced, and unfortified by self-knowledge has brought forth what may be called the literature of awakened enthusiasm-literature brimful of false notions and barren ideals borrowed from the dominant faith. Specious and seductive by reason of a brilliant style, it is not entirely harmless literature. Even while inveighing against certain idols of the market, its authors unwittingly set up others for our adulation. It denounces the materialism of the Jew of to-day, ignoring the Jew who lives not by bread alone, but chiefly by Judaism. It measures Judaism by the standards of other creeds, without realizing apparently that Judaism has a development since Bible times. By urging colorless spirituality as the characteristic of the Judaism or the religion of the future, it puts into the mouth of those non-observant Jews whose laxity springs from incapability of sacrifice, an argument justifying their religion of convenience, so supporting the very materialist whom it begins by scourging. It fosters sentimentality, and encourages the revolt from the robust activity demanded by Judaism. For spirituality can never be a rule of life; it is only the attribute of a life lived according to the positive behests of religion. It is annoying literature, because it invites frothy imitation. But we need not fear its persistence. Hand in hand with the futilities of the advocate of amalgamation, it will pass into oblivion.

The isolated facts mentioned at the beginning I take to mean that the contemporary revival of interest in Jewish studies, the third in our century, like the other two, is accompanied by a revival of the Hebrew language. That this is true can well be illustrated by a movement that epitomizes the finest Jewish impulses of the day-the so-called nationalistic movement, or Zionism-the movement organized to extend practical aid to all inclined, I do not say to return to, but to establish themselves in Palestine. Its promoters advocate self-emancipation along with self-respect and self-knowledge. It is their belief that the Jew can be a dignified member of human society only if he has a stable centre towards which the scattered of his nation -shall gravitate in perilous times. As Palestine is his by promise and by ancient conquest, by reason of his patriarchs, prophets, and psalmists, by virtue of his blood and his reminiscences, Palestine naturally suggests itself as the most suitable centre; endeared, as it is, moreover, as the ideal of his nation's poetry and religious aspiration. Whatever we may think of the Zionists' practical sense, their enthusiasm, based on thorough knowledge of our past and ardent feeling for the unfortunate of our race, compels sympathy. To me their practical sense seems far from despicable. Their first measure was the cultivation of the Hebrew language. While we were dozing in security or in dullness twenty years ago, the founders of the movement had long been on the alert, and were establishing journals, writing pamphlets, forming societies, and producing real literature, all for the purpose of familiarizing Jews with their own sacred tongue, that it might support them in the trying times which they foresaw, and bind them together in the united effort for liberation. A goodly proportion of the Jewish works now appearing own Zionists as authors, to whom the cultivation of our ancient language is both a means to an end and a laudable object in itself, because it entrenches the Jew in his Judaism.

It is a just question to ask whether self-respect, self-knowledge, and if need be even self-emancipation, cannot be reached by each section of the Jewish race through literature in the vernacular. To a great extent such literature is effective. So far as the head goes, it is as good as any, but it can never stir the heart as hearts should be stirred to uproot apathy. The Hebrew language itself, is freighted with untranslatable Hebrew ideals. A Hebrew-word conjures up a whole train of religious thoughts; therefore our public worship is bound to lose its Jewish character in the measure in which Hebrew is banished. Writers of Hebrew can have derived their knowledge of the language only from Hebrew literature, every path of which leads the wanderer back to the Bible. Their writings, therefore, be they for or against Judaism, are products of our own soil, and must be steeped in Jewish thought. The world agrees with me; for every great religious movement in the Christian world recorded by history was accompanied by devoted study of the language of the Bible, as witness the Protestant Reformation.

The questioners are the timid ones who are constantly haunted by the spectre of isolation. They shudder at the thought of a possible Ghetto of the twentieth century, and this fear is the Moloch to which they sacrifice religion, truth, yea, like their fathers of old, their children. I maintain that, instead of isolating us, Hebrew makes us cosmopolitan in the noblest sense of the word, that is, sympathetic with all that is human. Formerly when the Jew wandered from place to place he kept in touch with all the peoples of civilization. To study his history involves the study of all history. If perchance he was permitted a local habitation in the East or the West, he yet kept up his connection with the distant nations through his brethren. By the very fact, indeed, that he communicated for religious purposes with the centres of Jewish learning, he became the chosen messenger of international commerce, that peacemaker between the most hostile, and so linked nation to nation. And the bond between the Jew of the East and him of the West was a common language, laden with common sacred associations, the language of his many prayerful moments. We were culture-bearers then, because we were cultured as Jews, to whom, however, nothing human was strange.

Like a genuine Jew, I would answer the question of the timid by a counter-question. There is a vast literary storehouse filled with treasures; the key the Hebrew language, is in our guardianship; have we a right to throw the key into the ocean of oblivion, and deprive the world of the enjoyment of those treasures? More than that; when we have ceased to be the efficient guardians of our treasures, of what use are we in the world? I fear that in the case of such flagrant dereliction of duty the twentieth century will have in store for us not a Ghetto but a grave.

At the seeming risk of confirming Goldwin Smith's opinion that Jews cannot be patriots, and at the inevitable risk of calling down upon myself the imputation of narrowness, I go a step farther and assert my conviction that keeping in touch with our brethren is in itself an object. The Jew of Hamadan must be understood by the Jew of Paris and New York, if Israel is to realize his mission. For him who does not believe in Israel's mission, I have, of course, no message. But he who thinks that Hebrew ideals have not yet been realized, who hopes for the reign of the Prophet's peace on earth, and believes Israel to be the Messiah of the nations, must logically maintain the unbroken solidarity of the house of Israel as an indispensable condition. Dispersed as we are, we have the best opportunity, even while proclaiming the unity and fatherhood of God, of serving as a practical illustration of the brotherhood of man. We prate much about that brotherhood, and in demonstrating our willingness to be brother to any and every man, we as a rule put an ever-widening gulf between ourselves and the majority of our own race. So the anomalous condition has come about that we speak not only of orthodox and reform Judaism, but of American Judaism, German Judaism, and Russian Judaism as of wholly incongruous phases of development. As there is but one God, so there is but one Judaism, and that Judaism has but one language-the Hebrew.

You are exhorted by your leaders and your enthusiasts to return-some say to the old-time fervor which was enshrined in ceremonies that have served their day, others say to the ceremonies, because they are the caskets of the precious volatile spirit called religion. The only road by which to return to old-time fervor or old-time religiousness, that is, to true self-consciousness and self-respect, is through self-knowledge embalmed in our language, the form in which the most delicate essence is preserved.

The poet says that we read "the mystic volume of the world" "with reverted look," "spelling it backward like a Hebrew book." Our whole literature proves him true; to this day it is one vast commentary upon the Bible. But the accusation need not startle us. Let us continue to make it true. In this practical age with its watchword or catchword "progress," they who look forward and keep our awkward bodies from stumbling are many. Let us but continue to spell backward, and we shall learn, and mayhap teach others, how to go triumphantly forward on the path of righteousness, beauty, and truth-even the path of Judaism.

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